NATURAL WINE: LESS IS MORE AND OTHER LESSONS FROM RAW WINE NEW YORK 2017

by Susan Manfull

In attendance at RAW WINE New York were eight natural wine producers from the Rhône Valley and one from Provence.

Natural wines came on my radar a few years ago, probably through the writings of Alice Feiring, one of the first mainstream writers to champion their cause. Feiring is a gifted and prolific wine writer and, in the case of promoting natural wine, has been like a dog with a bone (and definitely not a rawhide one!).

Anyway, her ardent support for natural wines was so compelling that one day while visiting our daughter in Manhattan,  I took the long hike, husband in tow, from the Upper East side of the city down to Chambers Street Wines, renowned in the wine world for “their love for naturally made wines from artisanal small producers.” A tasting of natural wines was on the schedule and I wanted to see what this fledgling movement was all about. 

RAW WINE New York 2017. Photo by W T Manfull

I cannot remember now by whom or from where the wines were made, but I vividly remember the opinion I formed of natural wines, as if it were etched in stone, and until the last year or so, seemingly immutable. Words that come to mind from that memorable afternoon some three years ago are funky and very unpleasant aromas and, on the palate, unexpected fizz as well as a cider-like taste with notes of yeastiness. Flat and drab with zero finish. Never have I looked so fast for a spittoon.

It is completely unfair to generalize about an entire category of anything based on an ‘N’ of three—if memory serves me correctly, there were four or five wines but we declined the last one or two—however, our experience with the three wines was so visceral that the sweeping generalization happened quite naturally (pun intended).

RAW WINE New York 2017. Photo by W T Manfull

Fast forward a couple of years, I found myself more and more enjoying—in fact, smitten with—sustainably- and organically-grown  wines that were made with minimal intervention in the cellar. Some followed biodynamic principles in the vineyard and in the cellar as well. Most were small production with a lot of hands-on care. I often found these wines livelier, vibrant, interesting, and, dare I say, more “authentic” than their conventional peers. These were not cider-like, yeasty, fizzy wines. They were well crafted wines laden with flavor, complexity, and loads of personality…and although no one called them natural wines, they were natural wines.

Rejane Pouzoulas, 5th generation vigneron at Rhône’s Domaine Wilfried, pouring her wine at RAW WINE New York 2017. Not pictured is her brother Wilfried with whom she shares the helm of the domaine. Photo by W. T. Manfull

So, what are natural wines?  In a nutshell (in a grape skin?), they are wines made from hand-picked organically grown grapes (certification is not necessary) that are vinified with minimal intervention.  Without getting into the gory details of what defines “organic wine” (as it varies depending on where you are in the world), suffice to say that wine labeled “organic” is not necessarily “natural” and most “organic wine” is not made naturally.

It is what happens in the cellar that moves what would just be labeled organic wine into the natural wine category.  “Minimal intervention in the cellar” refers to, most importantly, no additives such as foreign yeasts and sugars and, perhaps most significantly, minimal or no added sulfites.  In addition, there can be no adjustments (e.g., acidification or de-acidification, no blocked malolactic fermentation) and minimal or no processing (e.g., fining or filtration).

The issue of sulfites are at the center of the most debate.  Sulfites are typically added, usually at bottling, to prevent oxidation and the growth of bacteria, and have been included in winemaking for centuries.  There is some disagreement in the movement about the amount of sulfites that may be added to the wine and still be called natural; to be included in RAW WINE, sulfites cannot exceed 70 mg/L but there are some winemakers who contend that red wines should contain no more than 10 mg/l and white wines should have not than 25 mg/L and still others who take the rather dogmatic position that no sulfites should be added at all. (Legal limits in Europe are 150 mg/L for red wine and 200 mg/L for rosé/white and in the U.S. is 350 mg/L; naturally occurring sulfite levels are about 10-20 mg/L; and all wines with sulfite levels beyond 10 mg/L must alert the consumer on the label that sulfites are present.)

The upshot is a wine that is said to be healthier and to better reflect the grape varieties and the terroir than conventionally made wines.  The wines are often described as “alive” and “vibrant.”

Henri Bungener, proprietor of Le Clos de Caveau in Vacqueyras, disusses the importance of terroir, especially soil, in his wines. RAW WINE New York 2017 Photo by W.T. Manfull

There is no certification for natural wines which underscores the importance of honesty and trust among vintners and with their consumers, an ethos that is an integral part of the community.  As you may have deduced, there is no agreed upon definition of this genre of wine which, I think, probably reinforces the deep sense of community said to characterize the movement.  Some people say natural wines are based more on philosophy than on specific practices.

That sense of spirited community was certainly apparent at RAW WINE New York, a two-day artisan wine fair devoted to natural wine that was held last Sunday and Monday at 99 Scott Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn.  There, 120 growers from 21 different countries set up tables to serve their raw wines, otherwise known as natural wines.  Cider, mead, cognac, and tea were also be poured, all made with organically grown fruit and minimal intervention in production. It was the second year in the Big Apple and seemed to be even more popular than last year—tickets were sold out several days in advance for Sunday and the day before for Monday.

Scenes from RAW WINE New York 2017. Photo by W. T. Manfull

RAW WINE was founded by Isabelle Legeron MW, originally from France and now living in London. It is worth noting that there are currently only 369 Masters of Wine in the world and that Legeron was the first French woman to become a Master of Wine (back in 2008). Legeron is also credited with creating the RAW WINE fairs, the first of which took place in London (in 2012) and is now an annual event, followed by one in Vienna (in 2014), and then Berlin (in 2015) where it is also an annual event.    The fair crossed the Atlantic for the first time last year in New York and, this year, after its second appearance in New York last week, the fair will debut in Los Angeles where it opens tomorrow.

Scene from RAW WINE New York 2017. Photo by W. T. Manfull

RAW WINE is, at its heart, a celebration of natural wine.  It is also a vehicle for raising consumer and trade awareness of the category of wine.  RAW WINE is also an opportunity to promote the importance of transparency.  That is, what exactly is in that bottle of wine?  Most consumers would be surprised.

In the catalogue, Legeron writes “my aim is to promote transparency in the wine world in order to support the art of authentic wine production.  I want to help people think about what they drink.  It is not about condemning practices; it is about raising awareness so that people can decide what they drink.” As captured in this passage, Legeron’s approach to championing natural wines and promoting transparency is very positive in spirit. It’s about having informed choices, both Legeron and Feiring have said over and over.

Moi, on my way to RAW WINE New York 2017, located at 99 Scott Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Photo by W. T. Manfull

At New York wine fair, producers hailed from 21 countries:  Argentina, Australia, Austria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States. 

Rhône natural wine producers, clockwise from upper left corner are: Lucie Fourel, co-proprietor of Domaine Les 4 Vents in Crozes-Hermitage; Cécile et Frédéric Renoux, proprietors of Château Landra in Ventoux; vignerons from Domaine Viret in Saint-Maurice-sur-Eygues; and Thomas Bertrand, co-proprietor of Domaine Rouge-Bleu in Sainte-Cécile-les-Vignes. RAW WINE New York 2017 Photos by W.T. Manfull

I honed in on the producers from Provence and Rhône Valley (given the focus of Provence WineZine.  Believe me, that kept my photographer husband and me busy, but I sure wish I would have had a little more time to explore the elixirs of other parts of France and those of the other countries. I had a long conversation with a winemaker from Chili (over a pizza from my beloved Roberta’s, one of the topnotch food vendors at this event).  François Pouzet Grez’s family owns Tipaume, an organic and biodynamic natural winery that uses amphorae made from the soil on their property.  How natural is that? (He did not have a table in New York but does have one in Los Angeles and I would definitely recommend stopping by!)

Jean Baptiste Dutheil of Bandol’s Château Sainte Anne pours his wine. RAW WINE New York 2017 Photo by W.T. Manfull

I stopped by the tasting tables of the lone winemaker from Provence—Bandol’s Château Sainte Anne—and of each of the eight winemakers from the Rhône Valley—Château Landra, Clos des Mourres, Domaine Arsac, Domaine Les 4 Vents, Domaine Rouge-Bleu, Domaine Viret, Domaine Wilfried, and Le Clos de Caveau.

The wines we tasted were, across the board, good to very good and many were exceptionally good. One might be tempted to say that my palate has acclimated to the alleged unconventional tastes of natural wine but, truly, it was the wines themselves that were so thoroughly enjoyable.  I realize that there is some kind of requisite vetting process to be included in RAW WINE, but, compared to the typical wine fair, many more wines titillated my palate here. Unfettered by any cellar antics, it seems that less is clearly more.

Moi at RAW WINE New York 2017. Photo by W. T. Manfull

So, why have people, such as myself (until now), harbored such a negative perception of natural wines? One, there is a learning curve and, for me, several years have passed since my first tasting at Chambers Street Wines—winemakers may be more practiced now at making low intervention wines. Two, as Alice Feiring wrote in The Feiring Line last year, there is a trend in the wine industry to release wines very soon after fermentation starts, when the wines are “unfinished and unformed”; she likened them to a “soft-boiled egg that has not set.” This is probably especially detrimental for natural wines (sans sulfites). Three, some winemakers falsely believe that natural wine means “doing nothing” in the vineyard or the cellar when the precise opposite more accurately describes natural wine making. Four, perhaps some (unsavory?) winemakers are trying to grab a seat on the bandwagon, as happens in any popular movement.

Alice Feiring’s book (with Pascaline Lepeltier, MS) is entitled ” The Dirty Guide to Wine” and was just released. I dove right into it! RAW WINE New York 2017. Photo by W T Manfull

As Marc Gérise, Sommelier Conseil and owner of Ballon 2 Rouge, a wine shop in St Rémy de Provence that specializes in organic, biodynamic, and natural wines, said to me in so many words: there is a lot of natural wine out there now that is not worth drinking.

I hope the market will remedy these quality issues but as Feiring points out in the same article, “…quite a few of the enthusiasts are drinking for the same reason people used to drink oaky, jammy bombs of the past—and hated them.  They were told they were supposed to like them.  No one wants to look foolish.”

RAW WINE New York 2017. Photo by W. T. Manfull

Then, there is the issue of supply versus demand.  In a market as hot as this one, will there be an adequate supply of good natural wines? If not, will inferior natural wines fill the void?

Pictured, clockwise from upper left is Henri Bungener, proprietor of Le Clos de Caveau in Vacqueyras in the Rhône Valley; unknown visitor; Sébastien Arsac co-proprietor of Domaine Arsac in l’Ardèche in the Rhône Valley; and Jean-Philippe Boucher, co-proprietor of Clos des Mourres in Vaison la Romaine in the Rhône Valley. RAW WINE New York 2017. Photo by W. T. Manfull

Events such as the RAW WINE fairs are an opportunity for consumers to learn more about natural wine by tasting the wines, of course, but also by talking to the winemakers.  For Legeron, these conversations are particularly important and one of the purposes of these fairs.  To me, it is always interesting to hear directly from the men and women who make the wine.  What their goals are in making the wines they are pouring into your glass?  Why have they opted to make natural wines?  The answers are often passionate and inspiring, touching upon their belief that it is essential to work organically in the vineyards for the sake of the earth and naturally in the cellar for benefit of humankind—even though natural winemaking is inherently quite risky.  There is an intimate connection these winemakers profess to feel with the terroir; echoed in many of my conversations was the winemaker’s steadfast belief that their wines are “respectful of the grapes” in the words of Rejane Pouzoulas of Domaine Wilfried and “remove as little as [one] can from nature,” in the words of another winemaker Thomas Bertrand of Domain Rouge-Bleu.  

It was a long, wonderful day. RAW WINE New York 2017. Photo by W. T. Manfull

Notes:

RAW WINE Los Angeles opens today at Vibiana on 214 South Main Street in Los Angeles. It runs today and tomorrow, November 12th and 13th.  For more information about RAW WINE Los Angeles, visit: http://losangeles.rawwine.com/   

The 2018 RAW WINE fairs in London and Berlin are scheduled for March 11th-12th and May 13th-14th, respectively.   

If you really love French natural wine, you are a candidate to attend La Dive Bouteille.

1% of the world’s wine production is said to be natural wine.

 

8 Comments

  1. Your closing sentence could have been the opening line to this very needed piece on what sets natural wine apart. It would add emphasis to a movement, well not really that yet, which surely more drinkers will come to address. Personally, I doubt it has yet to reach 1%, but believe Millennials in particular will push it to the forefront of what they want from wine-growers, which one day might take it to 5% of what is sold in the US.
    As for me, I have read through the artisan exhibitor listings for both RAW WINE New York and L.A., and come out the other side joining for the first time a wine club of a natural wine producer here in America.

    • It’s a complex market, it seems. Certain geographic segments of our country are seeing noticeable growth. I read in a Meininger’s Wine Business article that “Seminal natural-wines distributor Jenny & Francois reports a doubling in sales over the last five years, and now sells to 23 states.” Whole Foods Market is a big driver. On the other hand, other big distributors are rather dismissive of natural wine.

      In this country, it is hard enough for a consumer to identify an organic wine, let alone a natural one so the onus is on the distributor and retailer to market them clearly…and to educate consumers about why they would want to go to the trouble of identifying them and finding them. Thus, natural wine need to attract the attention of more wine writers…which, in fact, it appears to be doing in mainstream publications, as evidenced by recent articles in Vogue and Bon Appetit, as well as on significant blogs.

      Yeah, I agree that millennials will play a large role in driving sales and market interest. RAW WINE NYC 2017 had a larger proportion of under-35-year-olds, based on our observations. Nielson data (2015) suggests 65% of US millennials were interested in the category (cited in aforementioned article). And, millennials are the largest category of wine drinkers in our country AND they are willing to spend more than the other categories. In 2015, 17% of millennials were willing to spend upwards of $20 a bottle, compared to 10% in other age groups.

      They are powerful and, if they buy into natural wine, numbers will go up, assuming retailers and restaurants/bars stock their shelves and add them to winelists, importers bring them in and domestic winemakers increase production, and the wines are more consistently good. Still, it has to go mainstream, too.

      Keep us posted on your new membership!

  2. Hi Susan, Interesting article, as usual! My only experience of this type of wine was at The Tasting Counter in Somerville, MA. It is a 20 person restaurant and only serves raw wine/cider/beer. The chef chooses the accompaniment to the food. I must admit I was not a fan, but maybe we could
    try it again sometime.

    • Hi Mary, I would love to try The Tasting Counter! Portsmouth, NH has a new natural wine bar I have yet to try but it looks very good!

  3. Very funky looking group. Could have been 70s/80s California. Must check out some local natural wines.

    • Chateau Revelette, not too far from your stomping groups, has a terrific Carignan, naturally produced. Put on your funky clothes and give that a whirl!

  4. Hi Susan, It sounds like it was a great time at RAW WINE. I get the sense that natural wines are a hit-or-miss situation. How can one tell if a wine is “natural” or not if there is no certification or if it is not evident on the label? On a different subject, if one has to rely on published wine scores to differentiate the good natural wines from the bad, scores are so inflated these days that they are not even helpful!

  5. Unless the producer has indicated on the label that the grapes are organic and the wine has had minimal intervention, (i.e., minimal sulfur added, no yeast added, hand harvested, etc.), one would not know by looking at the bottle. “Natural Wine,” as I understand it, cannot be written on the label in the U.S. or Europe. Many of the natural wine producers opt not to be certified “organic” or “biodynamic” because it is expensive. Google the producer to find out for sure. There is a certain amount of trust that is necessary in this wine category. Whether it is good or not is another open question–many natural wine producers are small and don’t attract the attention of journalists or wine reviewers. Inflated reviews–well, that’s whole ‘nother can of worms!

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